New Indonesian leader hits out over democratic roll-back

New Indonesian leader hits out over democratic roll-back

JAKARTA - Indonesian president-elect Joko Widodo accused his opponents Friday of rolling back democracy after parliament voted to scrap direct elections of local officials, a move likely to hinder his ambitious reform agenda.

The outgoing legislature voted early Friday to scrap the local polls, a heavy blow for Widodo, who rose to power through the system and whose party had campaigned against the proposal.

The new law takes away the people's right to choose mayors, provincial governors and district heads across the archipelago, and instead hands power to local parliaments to pick them.

While opponents of the current system argued that holding so many elections was hugely costly and often caused conflicts, supporters said that doing away with the polls would be a setback for democracy and a return to a system used during the time of dictator Suharto, toppled in 1998.

The move to abolish the elections, which have been used for the past decade, was seen as revenge by political opponents of Widodo, known by his nickname Jokowi.

He started his career by winning direct election as a mayor before securing the presidency in July.

Parties that backed his rival, ex-general Prabowo Subianto, and have a majority in parliament provided support for the bill.

There had been much opposition to the plan and Widodo, a former furniture exporter from a humble background, sought on Friday to appeal to the large sections of the public who were disappointed.

"The public can see which parties have taken away people's political rights. Take note," he told reporters in the capital Jakarta.

Observers said the defeat is a bad start for Widodo, who will be inaugurated on October 20, as he will need to win support in parliament in future to push through reforms aimed at reviving a slowing economy and strengthening the country's welfare system.

"This has shown us that a strong power in parliament can come up with a decision that is the complete opposite of what is in the people's interest," Titi Anggraini, executive director of pro-democracy group Perludem, which opposed the bill, told AFP.

"It is very possible that future policies put forward by the government will receive a similar response."

Anger directed at president

Analyst Helmi Arman from Citigroup added: "It may dim market expectations on the reform outlook."

The Jakarta stock market was down 1.6 per cent in afternoon trade, as investors fretted about Widodo's ability to enact much needed reforms in Southeast Asia's top economy following the parliamentary defeat.

Many took to social media to vent their fury, with much anger directed at outgoing President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono and his ruling Democratic Party.

Yudhoyono had asked his large bloc of lawmakers to oppose the bill - but they ended up walking out of the session after their demands were not met, depriving opponents of the votes needed to maintain direct elections.

The president, on a visit to the United States, said he was "disappointed" at the outcome and he planned to challenge it in the Constitutional Court.

However many accused him of being insincere in his support for direct elections and "#ShameOnYouSBY" become one of the top topics trending on Twitter, referring to Yudhoyono by his initials.

"#ShameOnYouSBY for letting our democracy move backwards during YOUR watch. How's that for your legacy?" tweeted Ima Abdulrahim.

Perludem's Anggraini said that pro-democracy groups were also considering a legal challenge to the law, although it was not clear if the move stood any chance of success.

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